For the last week and a half the news has been pretty much all Boston bombing, all the time. Why wouldn’t it be? There was a horrific act of mayhem in which three innocent people were killed and 264 more were injured. There was a man hunt, a shoot-out, and a show-down that led to the capture of one of the perpetrators, who is now being grilled about his role in the terrible events. The media is full of interviews with everyone who has even the most tenuous connection with the Tsarnaev brothers, and their religion and motives are being analyzed to the finest detail.
In the meantime, a fertilizer plant has exploded in Texas, killing 14 and injuring 200 more. Although the tragedy was broadly announced, very little information seems to be making its way onto the public airwaves as to what led to this horrific event. Now that we know it wasn’t terrorism, we’ve pretty much let the subject drop.
What is it that is so much more compelling about the first tragedy than the second? Why does it deserve so much more of our national attention and imagination? Far more people were killed in Texas, and the property damage was devastating, pretty much flattening the small town. Their grief is just as real, their first responders just as brave.
There are, I’m sure, many explanations, but I’d suggest that the biggest reason for the different levels of national attention to the two tragedies has to do with a known flaw in the human brain. We are terrible at assessing risk. When we hear of a bombing, we imagine that it could happen to any of us. We see a world in which terrorists lurk behind every bush, and we want to do everything possible to stop the bad guys, and to punish their terrible acts of wrongdoing. When we hear of a factory explosion, it’s just an accident, and something that could not possibly happen to us, since we don’t happen to live next to a fertilizer plant.
But the reality is far different than the flight or fight systems in our brains would have us believe. The risk of terrorism to any given person in the US is infinitesimal. Your risk from a texting driver, a legal gun owner or a lightning strike is higher. Your risk, however, from under-regulated industry, of the type that caused the Texas explosion, the massive oil leaks that happened recently from pipelines in Arkansas and Texas, not to mention the Deepwater Horizon explosion that dumped over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico as well as claiming the lives of 11 rig workers, is far, far greater. If you consider the subtler incursions of unsafe pesticides, genetically modified foods that may or may not be safe, air and water pollution and so forth, then your exposure to risk starts to approach 100%.
If we really cared about addressing real dangers we would have applied the trillions of dollars that have gone to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to developing and promoting renewable energy and fighting the effects of climate change. If we really wanted to make our citizens safe, we would be holding the corporate perpetrators of natural and human disasters responsible, and working to see that safety regulations were followed in a way that would prevent future disasters.
But we are bound to a national narrative that tells us that we can combat the bad guys by putting more guns in the hands of the good guys. We are tied into a story which is so dedicated to supporting the capitalist undertaking that while we are willing to give corporations the free speech rights of individuals, we aren’t willing to hold them responsible the way we would with individuals who had committed equally heinous deeds. We are quick slap the label “evil” on people who commit terrible acts, and even to extend that label to the religious or ethnic groups to which they belong. But we seem to just accept the fact that corporations will do whatever they can to maximize profit, and the costs that all of us must bear are somehow simply the price of doing business.
Sure, I want to know why the Tsarnaev brothers committed their terrible acts of violence. And I get that we are fascinated by the rare individual who commits unimaginable acts for unimaginable reasons. We already know why West Fertilizer Co., and BP and Exxon and so many others allowed terrible things to happen on their watch. And it is that prosaic, everyday pattern of choosing short-term profit over life and health that I find truly terrifying.